In a break room, in the bowels of the airport where US Airways employees watch CNN, eat lunch and talk, Art Cozart balances an empty foam coffee cup on one knee and, with a pen, sketches a line down one side.
He draws a second line down, then two across. As he moves his pen in quick, deft strokes, a picture slowly emerges: The Morris Island Lighthouse near Charleston.
It's been 11 years since Cozart surprised co-workers - and himself - when he doodled on the side of an empty coffee cup and ended up with a lifelike drawing of an aircraft carrier. Since then, he has transformed hundreds of cups into works of art.
Around Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, Art Cozart is "The Cup Guy."
His official title is fleet service agent. He unloads bags headed for connecting flights, separates them according to their final destinations, then drives the bags on carts to the next gate.
"I don't feel like an artist," he said. "I just feel like a baggage handler who likes to draw."
Drawing is how he passes the time between flights. Dozens of his cups are stacked on shelves in one break room, and on the top of a TV set in another. The black-and-white pictures range from portraits of Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger, Farrah Fawcett and Jesus to pictures of a shrimp trawler, a spider and the Statue of Liberty.
Cozart, who is 56, is not trying to make a statement with his art. It's just for fun. But with the lifespan of a foam coffee cup estimated to be 500 years or more, his work could last as long as the "Mona Lisa." He only draws on used cups, and figures he has helped recycle about a thousand of the 25 billion plastic foam cups that Americans discard every year.
From baggage to art
If you look out at the tarmac after a US Airways flight lands, Cozart is the tall, skinny man with short gray hair, and a graying beard and mustache.
On an eight-hour shift, he usually works four or five flights, often with time in between for a few strokes of his pen. "I might start a picture, work for an hour or so, sometimes more, then go back to the picture," he said. If the flights are busy, with as many as 100 bags headed to 30 different planes, he may not have time to draw at all.
He has worked for US Airways 29 years, beginning in the air freight department at Piedmont airlines. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Stanley and have a 14-year-old son, Cameron, in high school and a daughter, Kristen, in college, so Cozart has no plans to retire any time soon. Their older daughter, Shannon Yoder, is married.
"As far as an employee is concerned, it's like having three people," said Lewis Burns, lead agent. "He's hardworking, conscientious and very concerned about the customer and everyone who works here."
In the break rooms beneath the airport concourses, Cozart has become a bit of a celebrity. He's been featured in USA Today, Our State magazine and on WCNC's "Charlotte Today," and he showcased his art at the opening last fall of the Mint Museum Uptown. In June, he donated eight cups featuring characters from "The Andy Griffith Show" to the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy.
Cozart shrugs off the attention with customary good humor. "That's my east gallery," he said about one of the break rooms, "and this is my west gallery." His best art, he said, is on display at home, away from the grime and jet fuel.
A portraiture artist
Cozart got his start in art by mimicking his older brother, Jim, who would sit at their dining room table and copy pictures of his favorite football players. Cozart still draws by copying pictures and photographs, and many reflect his interests.
He draws a lot of golfers because he loves the sport. There's a cup with people running - he ran four marathons about 30 years ago and still puts in a few miles every week. A lot of his cups have nature scenes - he enjoys camping, canoeing, stargazing and hunting for Indian pottery.
"He was doing the cups for a while before I even knew about them," Nancy Cozart said. "One day he came home from work and said, 'What do you think about this?' Over time he has really, really improved."
His favorite cup? A portrait of Lily Munster.
Drawing faces is his speciality, and colleagues turn to him for portraits of family, friends and pets. When a co-worker was hospitalized last month, Cozart drew a cup picture for him of Jack Nicklaus, the man's favorite golfer. Carol Crowley, a shift manager at the airline, asked Cozart to draw two cup pictures for her - each with the lieutenant general who led soldiers into a battle in Vietnam where her father died and the war correspondent who wrote about the battle. She plans to give the cups to the men at an upcoming reunion.
"To me, it's not just a drawing," Crowley said. "It's something that evokes emotion."
"It makes me feel good to hear that," Cozart told her. "I don't feel like an artist."
His cup floweth over
The only formal training he had was art class his senior year at South Point High School in Belmont. "I give the credit to God," Cozart said. "He gave me this talent, and he gave me lots of friends and family around me to give encouragement."
He started out drawing on coffee cups with a ballpoint pen, but the pen dug into the foam. Now he draws with a Precise V5 Rolling Ball Pen. He uses the tip of his finger to smear the ink to make shadows, and uses a black Sharpie for shading and contrast. If he makes a mistake, he wets his finger on his tongue and uses the finger as an eraser.
But there are some blemishes he won't erase. Most of The Cup Guy's canvases have coffee stains or teeth marks.